Tag Archives: politics

What is Stephen Harper Reading?

Yann Martel’s brilliantly entertaining blog, What is Stephen Harper Reading, is a treasure trove for booklovers.

If you are a writer in a country run by a man who does not care about the arts – and certainly does not give them enough money – how do you change his mind? Lobbying would be ineffective. Whiny columns will be predictable. And megaphones and placards are dull to a novelist who can dream up an ocean-going Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Yann Martel, whose Life of Pi won the Man Booker prize, has come up with his own form of direct action: every second Monday, he sends a book to the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper. If the PM will not follow the arts, the arts must come to him – by post.

These are not just any books, mind; Mr Harper is a busy man, so what he gets is short and accessible. As light reading, they can still be pretty heavy: Tolstoy, Hindu scriptures, Strindberg. Such texts, the writer says, “expand stillness” – just what a head of state needs after an infernal day’s politics.

When is he meant to read them? “Everyone can do a page at bedtime,” says Mr Martel. “Or his aide could get a book to him when he visits the toilet.” Each second-hand paperback has an introductory note from the sender (“Om Shanti” ends the letter accompanying the Bhagavad Gita).

An ice-hockey fan, the PM has not commented on his gifts. But to give is better than to receive, and the unrequited novelist will continue his campaign until Mr Harper leaves office. “If I knew he liked thrillers,” says Mr Martel, “I would send more of those – perhaps a Chinese thriller.”

Martel explains:

On March 28th, 2007, at 3 pm, I was sitting in the Visitors’ Gallery of the House of Commons, I and forty-nine other artists from across Canada, fifty in all, and I got to thinking about stillness. To read a book, one must be still. To watch a concert, a play, a movie, to look at a painting, one must be still. Religion, too, makes use of stillness, notably with prayer and meditation. Just gazing upon a still lake, upon a quiet winter scene—doesn’t that lull us into contemplation? Life, it seems, favours moments of stillness to appear on the edges of our perception and whisper to us, “Here I am. What do you think?” Then we become busy and the stillness vanishes, yet we hardly notice because we fall so easily for the delusion of busyness, whereby what keeps us busy must be important, and the busier we are with it, the more important it must be. And so we work, work, work, rush, rush, rush. On occasion we say to ourselves, panting, “Gosh, life is racing by.” But that’s not it at all, it’s the contrary: life is still. It is we who are racing by.

I was thinking about that, about stillness, and I was also thinking, more prosaically, about arts funding, not surprising since we fifty artists were there in the House to help celebrate the fifty years of the Canada Council for the Arts, that towering institution that has done so much to foster the identity of Canadians. I was thinking that to have a bare-bones approach to arts funding, as the present Conservative government has, to think of the arts as mere entertainment, to be indulged in after the serious business of life, that—in conjunction with retooling education so that it centres on the teaching of employable skills rather than the creating of thinking citizens—is to engineer souls that are post-historical, post-literate and pre-robotic; that is, blank souls wired to be unfulfilled and susceptible to conformism at its worst—intolerance and totalitarianism—because incapable of thinking for themselves, and vowed to a life of frustrated serfdom at the service of the feudal lords of profit.

The Prime Minister did not speak during our brief tribute, certainly not. I don’t think he even looked up. The snarling business of Question Period having just ended, he was shuffling papers. I tried to bring him close to me with my eyes.

Who is this man? What makes him tick? No doubt he is busy. No doubt he is deluded by that busyness. No doubt being Prime Minister fills his entire consideration and froths his sense of busied importance to the very brim. And no doubt he sounds and governs like one who cares little for the arts.

But he must have moments of stillness. And so this is what I propose to do: not to educate—that would be arrogant, less than that—to make suggestions to his stillness.

For as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada, I vow to send him every two weeks, mailed on a Monday, a book that has been known to expand stillness.

~~ From the Globe and Mail, April 14, 2007

Advertisements

Matthew Scully: A Compassionate Conservative

Dominion

A horrible, wonderful, important book

Pigs prematurely taken from their mothers root incessantly for something to chew or suck on; and if they are pigs spending their abbreviated lives in a factory farm, where maybe 500 animals are crowded into a space no bigger than a living room, the thing they try to chew on is the tail of the hog in front of them. This is not a happy habit for the industrial farmer: chewed tails can result in infections, and pigs that die, in Matthew Scully’s pitch-perfect phrase, ”an unauthorized death.”

The factory farmer’s solution? When the piglets are weaned, a good 12 to 16 weeks before nature had planned, their tails are docked, the lower part amputated with a pliers-like instrument. That small operation leaves the pigs with hypersensitive tails, which means the animals will not get complaisant and will struggle ever after to keep their clipped, throbbing appendages out of the mouths of their penmates.

Should you be inclined to pity the beasts for that or any other detail of their treatment in today’s giant meat-making plants, however, the executives in charge of booming factory farms like Smithfield Foods in Virginia, which kills 82,300 pigs a day — a quarter of the nation’s total — are eager to set your conscience at ease. When Scully asked Sonny Faison, head of Smithfield’s Carroll’s Foods division, in North Carolina, whether there isn’t something ”just a little sad” about confining millions of animals to cramped concrete enclosures, where there is no sun, wind, rain or even so much as a scattering of straw to sleep on, Faison declared au contraire. ”They love it,” he insisted. ”They’re in state-of-the art confinement facilities. The conditions that we keep these animals in are much more humane than when they were out in the field.” Another Smithfield supervisor seconded the notion, painting a bleak picture of the life of free-ranging swine: ”I mean, you put ’em out, they kind of scrounge around in the mud, and in the summer, around here, animals that are outside risk getting mosquito bites and things.”

Matthew ScullyDominion is a horrible, wonderful, important book. It is horrible in its subject, a half-reportorial, half-philosophical examination of some of the most repugnant things that human beings do to animals, notably keeping them in the factory farms that have taken over the business of supplying America’s insatiable meat tooth; and hunting them down on a new style of ”safaris,” which are nothing more than canned, risk-free opportunities to bag exotic species as easily as one might drown a suckling kitten. The book is wonderful in its eloquent, mordant clarity, and its hilarious fillets of sanctimonious cant and hypocrisy. For example, Scully quotes from a book called In Defense of Hunting, by James A. Swan — an authority favored by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and other proud, manly-men hunters — citing a passage that addresses the critics who weep over the animals and asks, aren’t they special, even sacred, too?

”A thing can become truly sacred only if a person knows in his or her heart that the object or creature can somehow serve as a conduit to a realm of existence that transcends the temporal,” Swan argues. ”If hunting can be a path to spirit, unhindered by guilt, then nature has a way of making sure that hunters feel compassion.”

Dominion is important in large measure because the author, an avowed conservative Republican and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, is an unexpected defender of animals against the depredations of profit-driven corporations, swaggering, gun-loving hunters, proponents of renewed ”harvesting” of whales and elephants and others who insist that all of nature is humanity’s romper room, to play with, rearrange and plunder at will.

As his friend and fellow political commentator, Joseph Sobran, said on hearing of Scully’s dietary preferences: ”A conservative, with a Catholic upbringing, and a vegetarian? Boy, talk about aggrieved minorities!” At the very least, Dominion will encourage patronage of the small, independent organic farms, where the cattle are grass-fed and treated humanely, an option that Scully calls ”a decent compromise.”

Scully’s argument is, fundamentally, wholly a moral one. It is wrong to be cruel to animals, he says, and when our cruelty expands and mutates to the point where we no longer recognize the animals in a factory farm as living creatures capable of feeling pain and fear, or when we insist on an inalienable right to stalk and slaughter intelligent, magnificent creatures like elephants or polar bears for the sheer, bracing thrill of it, then we debase ourselves. As the earth’s most powerful species and the only one capable of meditating on our actions, we have a moral responsibility to treat the animals in our care with kindness, empathy and thoughtfulness, Scully says. When we forfeit that responsibility, we forfeit the right to any of the little self-congratulatory designations we have claimed: as God’s ”chosen” ones.

As Scully sees it, we may be ”of” nature but we are not in it. For better or worse, we have dominion over the earth, and how we manage that position, whether as bloodthirsty tyrants or as benign patrons, is a core measure of our worth. ”Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship,” he writes.

The author takes a particular dislike toward those who argue that animals, being incapable of dwelling on their mortality, therefore don’t really suffer the way neuronally well-endowed humans can suffer. He also finds fault with those he considers moral relativists, like the philosopher Peter Singer, who has argued that reason, rather than knee-jerk compassion or squeamishness, should dictate what we deem the comparative worth of the lives of animals or severely handicapped infants. Scully can wax self-righteous and absolutist, and he considers the ”squeamishness factor” to be a handy indicator of something, like a factory farm, that is morally wrong. ”It is usually a sign of crimes against nature that we cannot bear to see them at all, that we recoil and hide our eyes,” he writes, ”and no one has ever cringed at the sight of a soybean factory.”

Overall, a beautiful and thoughtful book that forces some of us to look more closely into the mirror.

~~ Excerpted from The New York Times Book Review, by Natalie Angier

Matthew Scully, interviewed by National Review Online:

National Review Online: In a nutshell, how are we abusing dominion, our stewardship over animals?

Matthew Scully: In the same way that human beings are prone to abusing any other kind of power — by forgetting that we are not the final authority. The people who run our industrial livestock farms, for example, have lost all regard for animals as such, as beings with needs, natures, and a humble dignity of their own. They treat these creatures like machines and “production units” of man’s own making, instead of as living creatures made by God. And you will find a similar arrogance in every other kind of cruelty as well.

Washington Post Viewpoint: Animal Cruelty and the Need for Reform

Matthew Scully

Laika: The Dog That Touched the Stars

Laika“Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.”
~~ Oleg Georgivitch Gazenko, 1998

There was really a dog named Laika, and she touched the stars 50 years ago. Laika was the abandoned Russian puppy who was destined to become Earth’s first space traveler.

On November 3, 1957, the Soviet Union made headlines and history when they launched Sputnik II into orbit around the earth. The satellite had a passenger: a brown and white mutt named Laika.

Nick Abadzis brings her story to life in a haunting and bittersweet graphic novel, Laika, published by First Second Books. In 200 pages, he manages to portray the Russian attitude toward space conquest at the time, the grueling schedule that the scientists were forced to follow, and the heartbreaking decisions that the trainers of the dogs in the program had to make.

Laika began her life as the unwanted offspring of a highborn lady’s dog. Given to a boy as an “attitude change,” she wais locked up and abused before being thrown away. A series of events led Kudryuvka (Laika’s original name) to Yelena Dubrovsky, the trainer with the Russian space program. Both Yelena and Dr. Gazenko began to understand the sacrifice that both the dogs and the people involved in the space program were asked to make during the Space Race between Russia and the US.

Laika in her cageThe graphic novel opens with scenes of the frozen Russian gulag and a man named Korolev. Eighteen years later, he is the Chief Designer of Sputnik. Buoyed by the success of the successful launch, Prime Minister Khrushchev demands that his space program launch a second orbital vehicle within a single month…this time, with a living creature on board.

Laika, one of many dogs at the Institute of Aviation Medicine, has been trained for flight travel. She bonds immediately with her caretaker Yelena Alexandrovna Dubrovsky and endears herself to the other scientists as well. No dog is better suited for space travel, and Laika is slated to make a trip from which she will never return.

Laika in Sputnik

Laika dies five hours after she is launched on Sputnik II. Unlike later missions, no provision was made to ensure her safe return.

LaikaThe historical facts of Laika’s life and the characters that surround her were exhaustively researched. There’s Sergei Korolev, the head of the program, whom we meet as he is walking out of one of Stalin’s gulags, whence he had been banished in the great purges, and who becomes a driven monster, forever scarred by Siberia. There’s Yelena Dubrovksy, the space medicine program’s animal handler, who has a preternatural ability to connect with the space-dogs, but who is also a scientist and Party member who is clear-eyed in confronting their eventual fate.

For the most part Abadzis maintains a simplified cartoon style. At moments of great importance, however, he renders the figure of Laika more three-dimensional. As Laika sits in the red light of her capsule, mere moments before takeoff, she becomes highly realistic. Sometimes scenes are black and white, like stills from a movie. Other times they are two page spreads that drill home the wonder or the horror of a given moment. And in dreams, the lines that make up a panel grow soft and colourful.

Abadzis talks to Jeff Vandermeer at Amazon.com about making the graphic novel:

I’d known it was a good story since I was about six years old. It had always been at the back of my mind as a story to tell. In 2002, new information came to light about the Sputnik II mission and specifically Laika’s death. That was the spark. Why a graphic novel? Well, comics are my language. It’s the medium that I’m most familiar and comfortable…so it was first choice.

I had no idea there were so few Soviet engineers and scientists involved in the nascent space program — not to trivialize their incredible achievement but, in many senses, they just winged it, borne along in great part by Korolev’s force of will and political manoeuvering. Also it was interesting to find out how much the Soviet scientists cared for their cosmodogs. Events conspired to make Laika a sacrificial passenger on board Sputnik II, but they really did honour their canine cosmonauts. There’s even a statue of Laika in Moscow. Perhaps this book will go some small way to re-establishing her position in history: whatever the circumstances, and whether you agree with what they did or not, she was the first earthling in orbit around this planet.

I could have done with another hundred pages. But I’d taken a bit of time to write and thumbnail it and when that stage was finished, the publisher and I realized that the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launches was fast approaching. When I first pitched the idea to Mark Siegel at First Second, neither of us realized that it was so close. It felt like we needed to be a part of that, so I drew it extremely fast–two hundred pages in a little over eight months. It’s an understatement to say that it was extremely hard work. What got left out was a longer explication of Laika’s origins; the scenes with Mikhail, her first owner were much longer…. Originally, I did have an idea of doing three books: Laika would be the first, Gagarin the second, and a full-on comic strip biography of Korolev would be the final part that would bind together events seen in the first two. Maybe one day.

I suppose it would have been easy to make it another overly saccharine dead-dog story but that wouldn’t have been true either to my taste or to the socio-political system and culture I was attempting to portray. Laika — the real Laika — was a cute dog, as photographs attest. I didn’t want to anthropomorphize her, at least not to the extent that she was spouting speech and thought balloons like Tintin’s Snowy. It’d be disingenuous to suggest that, in dealing with a true story that involves dogs and their owners (even if they happen to be scientists in a Soviet cosmodog program), there wouldn’t be a bit of emotion. There’s plenty (and I hope the reader feels it). But there’s also the harsh reality of the time, the place and the confluence of events that put Laika into space.

When Comrade Yelena visits Laika for one last time she can hear the dog saying her name with every bark, even when Yelena is too far away to hear them. She dreams that Laika is calling out to her for help.

No one can walk away from this book untouched.

Laika’s final transmission

Excerpt at First Second Books

Review at Readaboutcomics

Interview with Abadzis at Comics Reporter

Aaron George Bailey’s Laika website

BBC News: What Happened to Laika

Interviews at BBC News: The World